Facebook is launching Portal and Portal+, two video calling devices it hopes will make face-to-face calls easier.
Many people are reluctant to make video calls because they can be overly complicated to use.
You can currently make video calls on your computer and smartphone, but you have to position the camera perfectly and maintain a steady position to keep your face in shot. These make the user experience overly fussy, which can be frustrating for tech-beginners such as the elderly who use it to keep in touch with their relatives.
What Facebook offers with its new platform is convenience: two purpose-built devices that can be placed around the home or office and make video calling as easy as pressing a button.
Facebook says they are “designed to help you feel closer to the important people in your life and make video chats feel less like a call, and more like you’re actually in the same room”.
A big problem with video calls is ambient noise that drowns out the sound of the person speaking. The Portals have four in-built microphones controlled by Smart Sound which intelligently enhance the voice of the person speaking even when they walk around a room, and filters any background noise, ensuring a voice call that sounds much closer to a person’s real voice.
Another issue is feeling as though you have to stay rigid so to remain in view of the camera lens. Portal uses AI technology to make sure everyone stays in frame. The smart camera can zoom in and out and follow a video caller when they move around.
The Portal is voice activated so you make a call just by saying ‘Hey Portal’. Its fixed position leaves your hands free, and is especially helpful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as they can use sign language.
You can use Portal to phone any of your Facebook friends and any iPhone or Android phone that has the Messenger app. Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant is built in so you can also ask it to answer your random internet questions.
After the Facebook’s involvement in the recent data misuse scandal there are undoubtedly going to be questions about how secure the platform is. No one wants a stranger to spy on them, so the Portal camera and microphone can be turned off and for the extra cautious there’s a cover that you can slip over the lens. Furthermore, Facebook promises that it will never view or store your calls.
However the concerns about Facebook’s overly invasive user tracking remain. Technology industry expert Casey Newton said: “It’s entirely possible that the contours of the company’s data-collection operation are broader than most employees can even keep in their heads at any given time. All of which might give you some pause before you pre-order your Portal.”
The Portal has a 10.1” screen with a 720p resolution and costs $199. The Portal+ has a 15.6” pivoting display with a 1080p resolution and costs $349. Both have a 4-mic array with a 360° pickup and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Facebook Portal and Portal+ will launch in the USA on 19 November and a UK release is expected in early 2019.